Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Job Interview Skills


John McCluskey, & James Bletcher, 
from Whizdom Recruitment
Greetings from the ANU Techlauncher job skills workshop. Staff from ANU Careers are going through interview skills. I was surprised to see that few of the students have ever been to a job interview. Some of the tips which careers advisers give, such as how to  read the job ad, might seem obvious, but they aren't. One surprise what research shows that body language and tone of voice have more impact in a job interview than what the interviewees actually say. This can be a problem for someone from a different culture. 

Something that hadn't occurred to me were tips for team exercises during job selection. With this a small group of about a half dozen applicants have to work together, while being observed. This is to see how potential staff will work with others. I flippantly suggested I would undermine the rest of the team to get the job, and the flippant reply was I would be good at the Defence Department (I actually worked there nine years). ;-)

Staff from Whizdom Recruitment talked about hot job areas. One obvious area is AI, but less obvious is nuclear submarines, which don't just need physicists, but computer people as well. One suggestion which surprised me was to attend industry conferences such as MilCIS.


Monday, April 8, 2024

What have you done to improve online student engagement?

I will be speaking on "Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging" at the free Online Engagement in Higher Education Special Interest Group Webinar, of HERDSA, 1pm, this Wednesday, 10 April 2024. HERDSA didn't want this to be just me talking, so as well as ten slides, I prepared four questions for the participants to answer, & discuss live:
"1. What have you done to improve online student engagement?
2. What level of granularity is best for feedback to students: hourly, daily, weekly, monthly?
3. Do students get tired of boilerplate replies?
4. Will they get annoyed by AI generated feedback?"

"In 2008 the Australian Computer Society commissioned Tom Worthington to design an online course in green computing. This course formed part of the Australian Computer Society’s professional development program. This was later run at the Australian National University as a masters course, and is still offered fifteen years later through Athabasca University (Canada).

The course uses a conventional text-based distance education format, with no video, and no webinars. Why? What was the rationale? This presentation shares key design principles of this unique format that has positively impacted student engagement. As a means of facilitating student engagement nudging techniques have been employed.

This HERDSA Special Interest Group, Online Engagement in Higher Education, will discuss the factors that have improved online student engagement and consider implications and applications of their own online courses, including a coordinated nudging process. This event will provide insights for those looking to adopt a nudging approach to better facilitate student engagement and learning.

Join this to see how this works, and can be applied at your institution."

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Good Online Learning Design is Good Learning Design

Associate Professor Elaine Huber,
University of Sydney
It is good to have a study which confirms, with scholarly rigor, what educators already knew: engagement is most important, with a focus on the student experience, and a supportive environment (McEwen & Huber, 2024).

What makes good teaching applies equally in a classroom, & online. It is just easier to hide bad teaching in a classroom. As an educator I have found that students are just as happy with well designed online courses as classroom based. There is plenty of research over decades to say the learning outcomes are much the same. 

Educators need to stop treating learning online as something new and novel. This is the normal way students have been learning for at least the last decade. It is just taking a long time for educators to admit this.

I first tried to teach online in 1999, shortly after joining a university faculty. Being a computer professional, I had no problem with the technology. The problem was my fixed idea as to what university teaching was: I was trying to emulate the lecture online, & failing to engage students. What I had to do was give up the idea that I was central to the student learning, and instead the student was. I then had an Epiphany, when I found myself announcing, at the end of a lecture series, it would be my last. I stopped giving lectures, & accepted a commission to prepare an online course, after being trained in vocational education techniques. After teaching vocational students, I discovered the same course content, & techniques, worked fine for university students.

Later as an online student myself, I experienced what it was like at two Australian universities, a vocational college, & a North American university. What was surprising was how achingly lonely & frustrating the experience was, how it was much the same on both sides of the Pacific, & how despite the problems, online 14,000 km from home was a better experience than being on campus at an Australian university.

Reference

McEwen, C., & Huber, E. (2024). Developing an Analytical Framework to Compare Students’ Experiences of Online Learning with Indicators of Good Online Learning Site Design. Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.59197/asrhe.v5i1.8317

Preparing for Solar Storms

Tom Worthington with the Telstra Tower in the distance.
Picture by Gary Ramage, Canberra Times,
published 25 March 2024. Reproduced by permission
In an interview with
The Canberra Times last week, I pointed out that space based telecommunications are vulnerable to solar storms, so terrestrial facilities such as Telstra Tower remain useful (Why Telstra Tower could save us in an apocalypse, Lucy Arundell, March 25 2024). As it happens, the Australian Space Weather Forecasting Centre (part of the Bureau of Meteorology), issued a severe space weather WATCH the day before the article was published: "The effects are expected to be significant. Increased awareness of critical infrastructure is advised." The alert was cancelled the next day. The following Tuesday I was interviewed on radio about the same topic.

My comment on solar storms was a throwaway remark, but the journalist identified it as the most interesting aspect of the interview. I often find such insights when being interviewed by journalists.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Machine Learning, Games, Economic Systems and The End of the World

Greetings from the Australian National University where  Dr. Yun Kun Cheung is speaking on "Machine Learning in Games and Economic Systems" at the weekly AI ML & Friends seminar. One question raised was if algorithmic trading can cause stock markets to collapse, as well as deliberate attacks which incorporate algorithmic learning.

This is my second AI seminar of the day discussing the adverse effects of AI. The first was Arvind Narayanan & Sayash Kapoor (Princeton University) on "AI and Existential Risk". At question time I asked if the use of AI might be an acceptable risk, where it reduces the risk of nuclear war. As an example, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released an article discussing the use of Australian nuclear powered submarines to defend Taiwan, and attack the Chinese mainland ("Punishing the Dragon—it’s not about Tomahawk missiles from SSNs", Malcolm Davis, 20 Mar 2024). Such a strategy risks escalating into nuclear war. As an alternative, I suggested small AI enabled drones, with limited offensive capability, could be used in place of nuclear submarines. As well as being more effective for defending, they have less capability for strategic offensive use.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Supporting students during placements

Dr. Romany Martin, University of Tasmania, talked just now on "Supporting allied health students during rural placements" in the regular ACEN Research Conversations webinar. It struck me how much there was in common with computer students on placements at small organisations. 

One issue not discussed was the problem of scale. Dr Martin mentioned a supervisor who personally delivered groceries to a student isolated at home with COVID-19, but you can't do that if you have many hundreds of students. One way to overcome that is with software. If provided some advice for development of the Student Practice Evaluation Form- Revised Package, produced by University of Queensland. But that is for keeping track of, and assessing, occupational therapy students on placements. Is there anything more general?

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Catastrophic Risks in Artificial Intelligence

Greetings from the Australian National University Colloquium on Artificial Intelligence and Catastrophic Risk. Normally I attend weekly AI, ML and Friends Seminars in the ANU School of Computing, but today I am in the social sciences building, with philosophers. The colloquium is by the ANU Machine Intelligence and Normative Theory Lab. In the first presentation by Professor Seth Lazar points out that "transformer based" generative AI is less brittle: much harder to get it to produce weird results. He also claimed Google was barely able to match Chat GPT's performance. Professor Lazar argued catastrophic and current risks of AI could be addressed together, including through regulation. 

On a positive note Professor Lazar argued AI could be used to efficiently improve human welfare, more than inefficient manual systems. However, I suggest this presents a rosy view of human nature. Resources are not inequitably distributed today due to inefficiency, but because those who have the resources have made a conscious decision to deprive others of them. With an efficient AI system they could implement this deliberate inequity much more effectively. 

Some feasible catastrophic risks Professor Lazar mentioned were discovering new chemical and biological weapons, cyber attacks, and safety critical attacks. A current worry he mentioned is targeting conventional weapons using complex computer systems, as is being used in Gaza now

At question time I asked Professor Lazar what advice would give the federal government, which has announced a trial of Microsoft Copilot in 50 government agencies. He suggested a Chief AI Officer in an AI Agency to oversee this. Also he suggested funding an AI Safety Institute. He hoped that Copilot would just be used for wording letters.

Professor Lazar  used computer generated images to illustrate his talk. These were based on the poem 'The Second Coming' by William Butler Yeats. This theosophical work has echoes where I am sitting today. The location of the ANU was decided by two theosophists Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin.

Professor Cameron Domenico,
Rutgers University–Newark
Professor Lazar, will be followed by Professor Cameron Domenico, Rutgers University–Newark, and Professor David Thorstad, Vanderbilt University.

ps: If all this catastrophic risks of AI sounds excessively alarmist, consider that Australia is going to build six optionally crewed ships. Each armed with 32 missiles, these ships will be able to sail thousands of kilometers with no one on board. Given the possibility of an enemy jamming the link to the ship, it will be tempting to build in an autonomous mode. 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones for Webinars

The SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones work well for webinars. I have tried a lot of headphones, earbuds, and more exotic gadgets, but these seem the most practical. The sound quality is good, they are loud enough,  easy to put on & stay in place. They don't interfere with my glasses. The battery lasts much longer than Bose Smart Glasses, for a fraction of the price. 

One great advantage over earbuds is that the controls are not, touch sensitive, and can be located with touch. Unlike ear buds I can yank the SoundPEATS off with one hand, and stuff them in a pocket. A bonus is the SoundPEATS work very well for Zoom calls, being relatively inconspicuous from the front.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

March First Wednesday Connect

Greetings from March CBRIN First Wednesday Connect at Canberra Airport. At the moment we are hearing about how the Airport uses robot mowers. I am not sure where the robot dog fits in.

Australian Government Trial of Generative AI for Law, Education, Health, and Aged Care

The Digital Transformation Agency has announced 50 Australian Public Service (APS) agencies are conducting a 6-month trial of Copilot (Microsoft's implementation of Chat GPT), ending June 2024. Staff first take learning module. Agencies have also been given some general guidance, on Accountability, Transparency, Explainability, Privacy, Fairness, and Wellbeing. Agencies where AI could be controversial include Attorney-General's, Education, Health and Aged Care, Home Affairs, and the National Disability Insurance Agency.

A previous Australian Government got into difficulties with relatively simple technology in what was known as the "Robodebt Scheme", which resulted in several deaths. Careless application of AI has the potential to cause human misery and casualties, on a much larger scale. It is to be hoped the APS applies the technology with thought, so there is no need for a Robo 2.0 Royal Commission.

ps: As it happens I will be running ANU computer project students though some Generative AI exercises using Copilot, over the next few weeks. Some of the students are studying programming AI in depth, but this is more general on how to use it.

Open Education Week, 4-8 March 2024

Greetings from Athabasca University (AU), Canada, where I am attending an Open Education Week event on "Exploring Openness in Education 2024". The audience is mostly M.Ed. and Ed. Doc students and faculty. Am one of the alumni, having completed my MEd in 2017. The panel includes Dr. Rory McGreal, who was one of my Professors when I studied at AU. I am not actually in Canada (I have never physically been to AU), but using a video conference.

Dr. McGreal is enthusiastic on using AI to create educational content, and help teach students. Other panelists are more skeptical, and working on guidelines for this. 

ps: I hope to will have the opportunity to discuss these issues in person at OEGlobal 2024 in Brisbane, 13-15 November 2024.

pps: The audio cut out on my laptop after a few minutes, so I dialed in for the sound. I had just purchased low cost SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones. These look a bit odd, but worked remarkably well. I was inspired by Johnnie Moore, who uses a similar headset for making short philosophical videos..

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Education and the Ripple Effect With China's Presence in SE Asia

Greetings from the Australian National University School of Regulation and Global Governance, where Associate Professor Enze Han is talking about his new book "The Ripple Effect: China's Complex Presence in Southeast Asia" (Oxford University Press, 2024). Dr. Han talked about the economic, as well as political support which China provides to countries of the region. At question time he was asked about the effects of education. He pointed out that Chinese language learning was popular in the region, but also that Chinese parents send their children to universities in the region. 

One element missing from the analysis was how this differs from that of previous growing economic powers. One of the audience asked Dr. Han about this. He pointed to South Korean influence in Vietnam.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Automated Misspelling

While I was pontificating about AI for learning this morning, my bemused colleagues were looking at the spelling mistakes in my blog. A check of the browser's list of spelling exceptions showed that somehow I had told it these were acceptable: adfvice, aemail, aletr, amagating, arile, benifit, faciliting, preditions, quailty, realise, and (worst of all) studnts. I have now deleted these and will also check the exception lists on my email. 

Australian Universities Accord Final Report: According to Generative AI

For the fun of it I asked Microsoft Copilot to summarize and critique the Australian Universities Accord Final Report. Here is what it came up with. ;-)

Summary:

The Australian Universities Accord Final Report, released by the Hon Jason Clare MP, Minister for Education, contains 47 recommendations aimed at reforming higher education to meet Australia’s future skills needs. Here are the key points:

  1. Reform Goals: The report sets a vision for the next decade and beyond. It aims to enhance the higher education sector’s effectiveness and responsiveness.

  2. Workforce Qualifications: The report recommends that at least 80% of the workforce should have either a vocational education and training (VET) or university qualification by 2050Currently, this figure stands at 60%1.

  3. Long-Term Plan: The Accord Final Report provides a long-term reform plan to address the evolving demands of Australia’s workforce and economy.

For more detailed insights, you can refer to the Summary Report prepared by the Department of Education2. It outlines the themes and issues identified in the full report.

Remember, this is just a concise overview, and I recommend exploring the full report for comprehensive information.

Critique:

Let’s delve into a concise critique of the Australian Universities Accord Final Report. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Ambitious Goals: The report sets ambitious targets, such as aiming for 80% of the workforce to have either a vocational education and training (VET) or university qualification by 2050. While this goal is commendable, achieving it will require substantial effort and investment.

  2. Implementation Challenges: The report outlines several recommendations, but translating them into effective policies and practices may face challenges. Implementation across diverse universities and regions could be complex.

  3. Equity and Access: While the report emphasizes workforce qualifications, it’s essential to ensure equitable access to higher education. Addressing barriers faced by disadvantaged groups, including Indigenous students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, is crucial.

  4. Funding and Resources: The report doesn’t delve deeply into funding mechanisms. Sustainable funding models are essential to support quality education, research, and infrastructure.

  5. Industry Collaboration: The report highlights the need for stronger collaboration between universities and industries. However, striking the right balance without compromising academic autonomy is critical.

  6. Digital Transformation: The report acknowledges the importance of digital skills. Universities must adapt swiftly to technological advancements and prepare graduates for a rapidly changing job market.

  7. Research and Innovation: While workforce qualifications are vital, universities’ role in research, innovation, and knowledge creation should not be overshadowed. Balancing practical skills with intellectual growth is essential.

In summary, the Accord Final Report provides a roadmap, but its success hinges on effective execution, stakeholder engagement, and ongoing evaluation. Policymakers, educators, and industry leaders must collaborate to turn these recommendations into meaningful outcomes for Australia’s higher education sector.


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Australian Universities Accord report: Some Final Thoughts


Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024
It has taken me a full day to work my way through the 44 recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024). The headline items are the later recommendations are the later ones to do with funding. What was disappointing was that the Panel did not explore new forms of tertiary education. There is mention of micro-credentials, stacked qualifications, regional education, and support for indigenous, low SES, and disabled students. However, there is a lack of recognition that the average student now learns primarily online, while working, undertaking many courses at different institutions. 

Much of the report is irrelevant to my recent experience of being a university, and TAFE, student. I did undertake a half semester on campus, but the rest of my studies were online. At one stage I was enrolled in three institutions at the same time. The fact that my university was in another state, or another country, made very little difference to my student experience. What mattered to me as a student was what credit I would get between systems. 

With increasing number of students undertaking micro-credentials, and other sub-degree programs, involving multiple institutions, I suggest more attention needs to be given to the administrative burden for government staff, institutions, and the students. When I attempted cross institutional enrollment in a course, I could not find any way to complete the required paperwork (each institution required me to get permission from the other first). The prospect of registering with the Australian government for student support for just a couple of courses was too daunting, so I paid the course fees with my credit card. Similarly, when enrolling as a TAFE student at the same time, I simply paid directly. As an international online student, I avoided any government paperwork, paying fees directly by credit card (the fees were lower than I had paid for similar courses as a domestic Australian student).

Some initiatives worth expanding did not get a mention in the report. One of these is Open Universities Australia, where institutions (not all universities) cooperate to provide flexible online education. Learning hubs in outer suburbs of cities, as well as regional areas, might be set up under a similar shared scheme. 

The Panel has made useful recommendations about Work Integrated Learning (WIL). However, what is lacking in this and several other areas are academic staff who are qualified to teach these subjects. The major challenge is to either implement mandatory requirements requiring academics to be qualified to teach using these techniques, incentives to encourage them, or both.


Universities Accord Report: No New funding model

Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024

Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024), waited until recommendation 40 to get to what is always the big issue in tertiary education: the funding model. The Panel focuses on skills needs for Australia, equitable access for students, balanced with a demand driven approach. Part of this already mentioned are fee-free preparatory courses (although a convincing case has not been made as to why these need to be fee free).

The Panel also recommends to "stop the practice of providing only partial funding for additional students when a university is overenrolled". As an educator, rather than an administrator, I don;t really understand what this is about: if the system is demand driven, with students paying fees, how can a university be "over-enrolled"?

Recommendation 41 provides more detail on funding. One point is that the Panel refers to "publicly funded universities". However, is there any reason why the Australian government would not support eligible students at any accredited institution: public, private, for-profit, or overseas.

The Panel is not proposing to change the current system, where funding is partly to the institution, and partly a subsidized loan to students. In particular a voucher system, where the money only goes to the institution when a student enrolls. Also, while proposing more funding for the VET sector, this would be kept separate from allocations for universities. The Panel proposes students can choose a microcredential, diploma, bachelor degree, postgraduate degree, or other. However, if institutions don't provide these options, or make them hard to enroll in, students will not be able to do that. Flexibility may be contrary to the interests of larger institutions, who want to lock students into a full degree. There may need to be regulations requiring, or financial incentives to support, flexibility.

The Panel take a traditional, and flawed approach, of proposing additional funding for First Nations, low SES and students with disability. This assumes these are a tiny group of students who are in some way deficient, and need fixing. I suggest abandoning this approach and instead fund the design and delivery of students with a wide range of interests, and abilities.

Higher Education Future Fund

In Recommendation 43 the Panel proposes a $10B Higher Education Future Fund. This is a relatively modest sized fund. The uses for the fund also seem unadventurous: digital infrastructure and student housing. The cost of digital infrastructure for a university is tiny compared to salaries, and seems hardly worth setting up such a fund for (unless building of new software, data centers, and the like are proposed). Funding student housing seems an odd choice for funding. Most students study from home, while working part time, and so do not need student housing. Co-contributions from universities are likely not worth the political trouble it would cause, and the Federal Government is more likely to simply provide all the money for the fund, perhaps as part of a deal with the minor parties in the Senate. The Government could force a university co-contribution, by diverting part of additional funding for universities to the fund. This way the Government would get the political kudos for increased university funding, plus kudos from expenditure from the fund.


Universities Accord Report: International and Regional Education Needs Credible Online Offerings

Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024
Despite the export revenue from, and controversy over, international education, the Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024), waited until recommendation 22 before addressing the topic. The focus of the recommendations is aligment between what Australian tertiary instutions, both universities and vocational education and training (VET) institutions teach, and Australian economic needs. This assumes that the international student's aim is to migrate to Australia (I was an international student but did not move to Canada). The Panel also proposes growing international education in regional and remote areas. Unless there are specific jobs for the students, such as in mining, this seems unrealistic.

Why would a student, particularly a young student, prefer to student in a remote area, which they could study in one of Australia's exciting cities? The mining industry has to provide very high salaries to attract workers. Will regional universities be prepared to offer cut price courses, or a guarantied high salary part time job to students?

More realistic are proposals from the panel to streamline visa processes. Australian universities are dependent two markets: China, and India. As I warned in 2016, a regional crisis could result in the loss of most on-campus international students. Universities need to diversify markets, and delivery methods.

The panel suggests improving alumni engagement in the region. This is certainly one way to boost links, but other more direct forms of marketing should also be used.

The recommendations on international students from the panel are excessively timid. Rather than see international students as a source of funds, and workers, it can be a way to provide a more vibrant environment for domestic students, who are preparing to be part of a global workforce. I presenting a proposal in 2018 to have students of the region working together online.

Producing new knowledge and using research capability


The panel rightly chose to put learning issues before research. With recommendation 24 the panel proposes a an examination of
national research funding. However Australian universities should have already being doping that, routinely, as part of their normal planning.

Professor Lachlan Blackhall,
ANU
Deputy Vice-Chancellor
(Research and Innovation).
Panel recommends Australian governments use university research output. However, that presupposes that universities have staff with consulting skills, which are different from research skills. If universities want the results of their research to be used, then academics have to learn new skills. Many universities have made a start with this, by establishing innovation centers to teach entrepreneurial skills. Some of promoted academics with exceptional entrepreneurial knowledge, such as Professor Lachlan Blackhall, the new ANU
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation).

Unfortunately the most important recommendation for using research capability is buried down in 26:
"e. ensuring that training in entrepreneurial, business, teaching and leadership skills is offered through additional qualifications in parallel with research training in preparation for careers beyond academia"
However, it is not clear that professional skills should be optional for doctoral graduates, and not a core part of their training. The government could take an alternative approach, and require this training, or transfer some of the funding to support professional doctorates, which have as their primary purpose the application of knowledge.

Establish an Australian Tertiary Education Commission

The panel recommends an "Australian Tertiary Education Commission", as an umbrella agency over existing federal higher education bodies. The idea has some merit. However, I spent some time working for the Commonwealth Schools Commission (more on this later), which lacked the powers to be truly effective. Whatever the administrative structure, education will remain a highly political issue.

Improving workforce capability and capacity

Recommendation 31 "b. encourage minimum teaching qualifications for higher education teaching roles" would not be acceptable for schools, or VET, and I suggest should not be for universities. There should be mandatory minimum teaching qualifications for universities. A simple approach would be to set these at the same level as VET, with a Certificate IV, although universities might find it easier to offer undergraduate and graduate certificates (although I found my Cert IV in T&A of more practical use than my Grad Cert in HE).

Centre of Excellence in Higher Education and Research

Recommendations 32 to 36 I suggest could be addressed together. The first is for a "Centre of Excellence in Higher Education and Research". That could then work on the others: 33 Tertiary Education Racism Study, 34 A First Nations-led review, 35 First Nations governance, supported by the last: 36 Data, measurement, and reporting.

Planning the tertiary education system of the future

Recommendation 37 is for the Australian Tertiary Education Commission to look at what tertiary education providers are needed and where. However, there are more fundamental questions to be addressed, in terms of the mix of VET and university, the mix of online and on-campus, and the mix of not and for-profit universities. One major question the Panel did ask is if specialist university should be permitted, which address one area of research. A question the Panel did not ask is if non-research institutions should called universities.

Regional tertiary education and communities

Curiously, than recommendations appear to be listed in order of importance, with the lost important last. Recommendation 39 addresses higher education delivery in regional and remote Australia. Unfortunately the Panel had confused delivery to regional, rural and remote areas, with the location of campuses in those areas. Australia was a pioneer in paper based distance education, 50 years ago. That was enhanced with the Internet and made mainstream by the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea that a student's first consideration of where a campus is belongs in the past. The Panel have some useful recommendations, such as renaming and expanding Regional Study Hubs. However, Australian Government need to seek advice on how to structure higher education more widely, or risk building a system for last century.

In 2013, when considering further study, I first looked at universities in the city where I lived. I then looked at universities within commuting distance. But I quickly dismissed these options, and enrolled at a campus 1,700 km away. For follow on studies I enrolled 17,000 km away, in another country. This was much simpler to do, and cheaper, than enrolling at an Australian university. It is this world Australian universities need to be able to compete in. Campuses are still useful to supplement learning, and research, but are no longer the main game.


Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging

I will be speaking on "Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging" at the HERDSA Online Engagement in Higher Education Special Interest Group, 1pm, 10 April 2024.

"In 2008 the Australian Computer Society commissioned Tom Worthington to design an online course in green computing. This course formed part of the Australian Computer Society’s professional development program. This was later run at the Australian National University as a masters course, and is still offered fifteen years later through Athabasca University (Canada).

The course uses a conventional text-based distance education format, with no video, and no webinars. Why? What was the rationale? This presentation shares key design principles of this unique format that has positively impacted student engagement. As a means of facilitating student engagement nudging techniques have been employed.

This HERDSA Special Interest Group, Online Engagement in Higher Education, will discuss the factors that have improved online student engagement and consider implications and applications of their own online courses, including a coordinated nudging process. This event will provide insights for those looking to adopt a nudging approach to better facilitate student engagement and learning.

Join this to see how this works, and can be applied at your institution."

Presentation available.


Sunday, February 25, 2024

Australian Universities Accord Final Report: Mostly Good

Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024
The Australian Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, has released a 408 page final report (25 February 2024). Some of the suggestions I made in my submission (and no doubt many others made), found their way into the report).

There is also a Summary Report by the Department of Education, which at 34 pages is longer than the executive summary in the actual report, so seems a bit pointless (unless the department just wanted to put its own spin on things).

The report, while mentioning democracy and civic values, emphasizes the economic benefits of research and higher education. It raises issues of low demand from students, casualisation of the university workforce, and financial pressures. Equity also features prominently. The report makes 47 recommendations to address these, and other, issues.

Targets and VET

The recommendations under broad headings, the first of which is the "National Tertiary Education Objective". Interestingly this is proposed for both higher and vocational education, to:

a. "underpin a strong, equitable and resilient democracy
b. drive national economic and social development and environmental sustainability."

Vocational education is mentioned further in the Attainment targets:

a. "a skilled workforce to meet the changing needs of the economy through a tertiary education attainment target of at least 80% of the working age population with at least one tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) by 2050 compared with 60% in 2023

b. growth in Commonwealth supported places in higher education to achieve this target, more than doubling the number of students in Commonwealth supported places from around 860,000 in 2022 to 1.8 million in 2050 across all age groups

c. growing numbers of younger Australians with a university education, through an attainment target of 55% of 25 to 34-year-olds with a bachelor degree qualification or above by 2050 compared with 45% in 2023, noting that many will also have a VET qualification

d. a strong and growing contribution to tertiary attainment driven by TAFE and the vocational system, with a planning assumption that 40% of 25 to 34-year-olds will have a tertiary level vocational or technical qualification in 2050, noting that some people have both a VET and higher education qualification ..."

As it happens, in my submission to the accord panel, I suggested an 80% vocational target but at a more ambitions Certificate IV level, rather than Certificate III. The panel's proposed target of 55% of young people with a bachelor degree may seem modest, given this is already at 45%. However, we may have already past peak degree, with enrollments dropping, as young people decide a degree is not their best investment. Government would do well to agree with this assessment, and decide to fund more flexible forms of education, rather than traditional bachelors degrees.

Flexible Courses and RPL

Under "A more flexible and responsive skills system" the panel recommends "working with tertiary education providers, industry and business to adopt a consistent, published, national approach to recognition of prior learning (RPL) and credit recognition":

i."address historical, cultural and institutional barriers to RPL and credit recognition

ii.make it easier for students to gain maximum credit for previous study and minimise

the time taken and cost to get a new qualification

iii.include recognising appropriate work experience

iv.improve student mobility to enter, exit and return to tertiary education"

While RPL is routine in VET, the difficulty will be in persuading and educating the university sector in how to do it. While universities could learn much from the VET sector, it will be difficult for the upper end of the university sector to accept this. Part of my day job for several years has been processing applications for credit for prior study, & RPL. This is something I have been formally trained to do in TAFE, & university programs, and though being on the accreditation standards board of my profession, but is not a skill many of my colleagues share, or value. Many universities in Australia share course designs across institutions, and international, where external professional recognition imposes standardization. However, this is not formally recognized, so a time consuming process is required to process every application for every course credit. This could be improved by giving incentives to universities to work together, and train staff.

The panel recognize the need for more flexible qualifications, with a recommendation for modular, stackable qualifications:

"5. That to help Australians quickly get the skills they need to fill jobs that are in shortage, the Australian Government establish a comprehensive system of modular, stackable and transferable qualifications, including microcredentials, consistent with a reformed Australian Qualifications Framework." (Page 19)

This one recommendation is worth a whole report in itself. In my submission, I recommended nested programs, rather than the more ambitious stackable. There is a subtle difference here. A university can create a set of qualifications which a student can undertake in sequence (nested). It is much harder to allow the student to assemble a larger qualification from an assortment of smaller ones (stackable). Even the much easier task of providing standalone micro-credentials is one that universities have been slow to achieve. The level of educational design skills would need to be considerably increased at Australian universities to achieve this aim.

Work Integrated Learning

The panel proposes to have studnts "earn and learn while studying" with a "Jobs Broker" for relevant part-time work, paid by employers.

"7. That to ensure students develop work relevant skills for employment after their study, the Australian Government increase opportunities for students to both earn and learn while studying by:

a. establishing a national brokerage system (‘Jobs Broker’) to support tertiary education students find part-time work and placements relevant to their fields of study. Delivery should be through a provider that charges paid subscriptions by employers. The service should be free for students, and allow them to earn income while studying and reduce cost of living pressures

b. promoting work-integrated learning (WIL) by working with peak bodies for employers, industry, business and tertiary education providers to deliver more WIL opportunities in curricula across all disciplines, and provide training to industry supervisors

c. improving measures of graduate generic skills as part of the Graduate Outcomes Survey and Employer Satisfaction Survey. The Australian Tertiary Education Commission should showcase best practice as part of its ‘State of the Tertiary Education System’ annual report

d. using models like degree apprenticeships that encourage an employment relationship as part of course design." (Page 19)

Again this is a recommendation which deserves a whole report itself, with implications for how higher education is provided. For students to be engaged in significant part time work requires them to be part time students. Flipping the Australian university system from a focus on full time study, to part time would seem radical, but is just a recognition of what has already happened. Much of the stress for students and staff comes from students who are holding down a job while studying full time.

For the last eight years I have been helping teach students undertaking Work Integrated Learning, mostly in groups, but also individual interns. Even in the vocationally orientated filed of computing, during a boom in demand for skills in areas such as cyber security, analytics, and AI, this is not easy. Outside vocationally orientated disciplines, such as computing, engineering, and business, this is going to be especially difficult. There is then the problem of training academic staff to design, teach and assess WIL.

Professional Accreditation

The Panel's recommendations on "Professional accreditation bodies", were slightly jarring for someone who has served on accreditation setting committees. As a member of my profession, I am used to telling universities, and governments, what they have to do, not the other way around.

"9. That to ensure professional accreditation including placement requirements are appropriate for industry and business skill needs, tertiary education providers and the Australian Government, through the Australian Tertiary Education Commission, work with professional accreditation bodies, to agree a code of conduct for these bodies. The code should ensure that any accreditation requirements are evidence-based and proportionate to the gain they provide and that placement requirements ensure that students gain industry relevant skills and experience without imposing onerous placement length and conditions." Page 20

That accreditation requirements should be evidence based is reasonable, and work placements not onerous. However this should be a mutual obligation, with the universities required to show they are teaching & assessing work relevant skills.

One example of where WIL assessment can go wrong is with e-portfolios. Students are told to reflect on what they learned on their placement, without training in how to write reflectively. The approach I have been using for the last few years is to frame the reflective e-portfolio in the form of an application for a job, so it is relevant to the student, and have the careers staff teach this.

Participation targets for First Nations, Low SES, Regional, Rural, Remote and Students with a Disability

In recommendation 10, the panel proposes participation targets for undergraduate university students by 2035: 3.3% First Nations, 20.2% low SES, 24.0% regional, rural, and remote, and current rate for students with disability. These are very modest targets, but even so no penalties for non-achievements, or incentives are proposed. Also by emphasizing university this may not be be in the best interests of studnts woH might benifit from attending VET first.

Building aspiration including through increasing readiness for tertiary education and providing career advice

In Recommendation 11, the panel proposes work by federal, and state governments on "... outreach programs designed to develop familiarity with tertiary education". Harder is to "... ensure post-school pathways are visible and integrated into secondary schooling ...".

Fee-free preparatory courses

The Panel calls for free university preparatory courses. One way to fit this in the current system, I suggest, would be to have the preparatory courses run by the VET sector.

Support to participate and succeed in learning

In recommendation 13 the Panel proposes funding for under-represented groups, to meet the targets set in Recommendation 10. It would have been a bit easier to follow the recommendations, if these had been together. No specific amounts are mentioned, or if this additional funding is to come out out of that already provided to universities. Also there is no mention of developing curricular, materials, delivery techniques to suit these students. As an example, it is likely many of the studnts would benifit from blended programs, delivered in part remotely at home, and on country. Also the content of courses may need to be different. Such course content and delivery techniques would also greatly enrich the leanring experience of other students.

Financial support for placements

The panel proposes in recommendation 14 government funding for work placements in nursing, care and teaching professions. The argument presented, that this would reduce financial hardship, makes no sense, unless the government support is extended to all disciplines.

Student income support

In recommendation 15 the panel asks the federal government increasing allowances and loosening rules. Hard to argue with that, except perhaps to suggest abolishing some of the rules.

Reducing student contributions and reforming HELP repayment arrangements

Of most interest to students will be the panels recommendation 16, to reduce the burden of HELP loans, and in particular the effect of the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) package. At the time it was introduced, many warned charging humanities students as a way to direct them to what the then government saw as more vocationally relevant programs would not work. It did not work, and the studnts should not be further punished for past bad government policy.

While previous recommendations were not specific about money, recommendation 17 proposes universities charging "high fees" (over $40,000) for graduate coursework (I assume a Masters), "be required to re-invest a proportion of income earned back into scholarships and bursaries to support students from under-represented backgrounds to access these courses". This Robinhood approach doesn't appear to be proposed for undergraduate courses, or for international student fees. Also it is a relatively mild levy, being retained within the institution.

Ensuring student safety and experience

The Panel calls for a National Student Ombudsman to handle complaints in recommendation 18. The Australian Government recently announced such an office would be established. It is usual for an industry ombudsman to be funded by the industry members, but there is no mention of funding in the announcement.

More controversial is recommendation 19, calling for student unions funded from student fees. This would go counter to the previous government's approach of cutting off funding to student unions. As an online student for seven years, I was slightly annoyed by services and amenities charges, when they went to the upgrading of facilities I had never seen, and would never use, because they were a thousand kilometers away.

Early at-school offers

Recommendation 20 reads like a cartel wanting to maintain the market share of its members. The panel recommends "early at-school offers for 2025 and 2026 should not be issued before September" to "maintain the integrity of senior secondary certificates". However, if universities are able to determine which students are likely to succeed at studies without certificates, they do not have integrity. If the certificates are no longer of value to universities, they should be modified to suit other users, such as employers, and VET. This would also certificates to emphasize work relevant skills.

Quality learning and teaching

Recommendation 21 shows the Panel placing hope over available evidence, by suggesting measures to "prepare the higher education sector for growth in student numbers". I suggest a further decrease in domestic student numbers is more likely, and would be a better outcome in terms of public policy. However, in any case I agree with the panel about "using proven innovative learning approaches which embrace online and hybrid teaching modalities". However, what is lacking is any proposal for university teachers being required to be qualified to teach. Paradoxically, while universities teach the highest level teachers they have the lowest requirements for teaching qualifications. The panel is not proposing to change that.

International education

At this point, it is time for a break ...


Thursday, February 22, 2024

What country does Generative AI use as much power and water as?

Generative AI is the new bitcoin. Pundits used to compete for which country they could compare Bitcoin's power use with. Some nominated were: Greece, Ireland, * Netherlands, and New Zealand. I put a section on this in my Sustainable Computing course.

I tried asking Copilot:

"What country does Microsoft Copilot use as much power and water as?"

It replied:
"Microsoft Copilot, like all datacenters, consumes energy and water. Let's delve into the specifics:

1. **Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE)**: This metric gauges how efficiently a datacenter utilizes energy. The closer the PUE number is to "1," the more efficient the energy use. Microsoft tracks PUE globally and across operating geographies. While newer datacenters and those operating at peak utilization tend to be more efficient, the goal is to get as close to "1" as feasible¹.

2. **Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE)**: WUE measures the efficiency of water consumption for humidification and cooling in datacenters. It's calculated by dividing the liters of water used by the total annual power needed to operate datacenter IT equipment (measured in kWh)¹.

Now, let's address your question. Microsoft's water consumption for its cloud data centers increased by **34%** in 2022, totaling **6.4 million cubic meters** of water. Generative AI workloads are partly responsible for this surge³. However, it's essential to note that this data pertains to Microsoft's overall operations, not specifically to Microsoft Copilot.

In summary, Microsoft's datacenters, including those supporting Copilot, have a significant environmental impact. However, pinpointing a specific country for comparison would require more detailed data. 🌐💧🔌

Source: Conversation with Bing, 22/02/2024
(1) How Microsoft measures datacenter water and energy use to improve Azure .... https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/how-microsoft-measures-datacenter-water-and-energy-use-to-improve-azure-cloud-sustainability/.
(2) Microsoft's water consumption jumps 34 percent amid AI boom. https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/microsofts-water-consumption-jumps-34-percent-amid-ai-boom/.
(3) Microsoft 365 admin center Microsoft 365 Copilot usage - Microsoft 365 .... https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/admin/activity-reports/microsoft-365-copilot-usage?view=o365-worldwide.
(4) Measuring usage, adoption, and the impact of Microsoft Copilot. https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/copilot-for-microsoft-365/measuring-usage-adoption-and-the-impact-of-microsoft-copilot/ev-p/4051091."

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Learning to Reflect in the Age of AI

 


This semester I am aiming to take a tentative step into AI for teaching. This will be in three workshops planned at ANU, for the computer project student's capstone e-portfolio for the ANU Techlauncher program. The students have to prepare a portfolio in the form of an application for a real job. The question was: do we try to ban students from using generative AI to help them with this, or do we show them how to use it effectively and ethically? I will attempt to do the latter. 

The ANU now provides Microsoft Copilot, as part of the Office suite. This provides the opportunity to take studnts through exercises to use it, to help with their writing. I have not used Copilot, but have explored the technology it is based on since 2022. The idea is to get the students in workshop groups to ask a career related question of Copilot, then critique & improve the answer.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a two-day Symposium at USyd on using AI this way, with team-based learning. One tip given at the symposium to stop students simply relying on the answers given by the AI. The idea is to prompt students with a very localized question, which the AI model can only answer with generalities: 

Last week I attended an ANU AI Assessment Question Drop In Session. The impression I got was that the ANU would not be averse to using AI this way. One of the other people who dropped in for advice was already proposing to run some team-based AI sessions along these lines.


Sunday, February 18, 2024

Australia Can Offer Low Cost Online International Education and Premium On-campus at the Same Time

In a recent preprint, Heller and Leede (2024) find that the third of Australian university students who are on-campus international tend to come from high GDP countries. The researchers propose that instead Australia provide low cost online education for the benifit of developing nations of the region. While well meaning, I suggest Heller and Leede, need to consider how to make such a strategy palatable to the Australian Government, which would need to fund the strategy, and the Australian universities, which would need to implement it. The Australian Government has a brief to aid its own citizens, not those of other countries. Why would Australia voluntarily give up billions in export dollars from one of its major industries, and forego cherry picking the best and brightest minds of the region? Why would Australian universities give up a large part of their funding? Is there any reason why Australia should cut the price of this export commodity, and not others, such as wheat? 

I suggest, as hard as it is, it is possible to make a case for low cost online courses. Part of that case is geopolitical. Australia is competing for influence in its region. Since the days of the cold war, one way to compete has been with education. Under the Colombo Plan, Australia offered education to make influential friends in the region. A second argument is economic. One way to maximize revenue for sale of a commodity is to sell the same thing at different prices to different customers. This has been achieved by Australian supermarkets selling goods at higher prices in metropolitan areas through small boutique stores. It is also achieved by online retailers, who can set a different price for each retailer. Those offering services al often offer discounts for pensioners, ostensibly as an act of charity, but also because it is better to sell the product at a lower price that not at all to someone who can't afford a higher price. 

Australia could adopt a differential pricing strategy for students based on an ability to pay. This could be done first of all by offering low cost online courses. While online courses offer the same educational outcomes as face to face courses, they are perceived to be inferior. Also while the same course offered with the same staffing level costs about the same to deliver, they are perceived to be cheaper. As a result, Australia could offer low cost online courses, without significantly cannibalizing its on-campus enrollments. 

Australia did run the "Virtual Colombo Plan" (VCP), a $230M Australian Government/World Bank initiative from 2001 to 2006, for on-line education in developing nations (Curtain, 2004 and McCawley, Henry and Zurstrassen, 2002). The VCP ended in 2006 with little ceremony, but it did help fund the African Virtual University.

Tom Worthington addressing the
Computer Society of Sri Lanka
National IT Conference 2018 
In 2018, in a presentation in Colombo,  I suggested countries of the Indo-Pacific could jointly educate professionals using mobile devices, in to counter the influence of China's Belt and Road Education Plan. I provided more details in a formal paper (Worthington, 2018). Rather than creating free courses, dependent on intermittent foreign aid programs. I suggested that allied educational institutions, and entrepreneurs, could be assisted to set up not-for-profit, and for-profit programs.

Reference

Heller, R. F., & Leeder, S. R. (2024, January 2). A population perspective on international students in Australian universities. https://doi.org/10.35542/osf.io/hsnke

Worthington, Tom. Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific. In Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE), 2018 IEEE 7th International Conference on. IEEE. url https://doi.org/10.1109/TALE.2018.8615183